John Tye, the founder of Whistleblower Aid, a nonprofit legal organization that represents people seeking to report potential breaches of the law, was contacted this spring through a mutual connection by a woman who claimed to have worked for Facebook.
The woman told Mr Tye and his team something intriguing: She had access to tens of thousands of pages of internal documents from the world’s largest social network. In a series of appeals, she asked for legal protection and a way to disclose confidential information. Mr. Tye, who said he understood the gravity of what the woman brought “in a matter of minutes”, agreed to represent her and call her by the pseudonym “Sean”.
She “is a very courageous person and takes a personal risk to hold a trillion dollar company to account,” he said.
On Sunday, Frances Haugen was revealed to be “Sean”, the Facebook whistleblower. A product manager who worked for nearly two years on the social media’s civic disinformation team before leaving in May, Ms Haugen used the documents she collected to expose how well Facebook knew about the damage it was doing. ‘he was talking and provided the evidence to lawmakers, regulators and the media.
In an interview with “60 Minutes” broadcast on Sunday, Ms Haugen, 37, said she was alarmed at what she saw on Facebook. The company has repeatedly put its own interests over those of the public, she said. So she copied the internal Facebook search pages and decided to do something about it.
“I saw a bunch of social media and it was significantly worse on Facebook than I had seen before,” Ms. Haugen said. She added: “Facebook, time and time again, has shown it prefers profit over security.”
Ms Haugen handed over numerous documents to the Wall Street Journal, which began publishing the findings last month. The revelations – including that Facebook knew Instagram made body image issues worse among adolescents and that it had a two-tier justice system – drew criticism from lawmakers, regulators and the public.
Ms Haugen also filed a whistleblower complaint with the Security and Trade Commission, accusing Facebook of deceiving investors with public statements that did not match its internal actions. And she spoke to lawmakers such as Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, and Senator Marsha Blackburn, Republican of Tennessee, and shared subsets of the documents with them.
The spotlight on Ms Haugen should get brighter. On Tuesday, she is due to testify in Congress on the impact of Facebook on young users.
Ms Haugen’s actions were a sign of how Facebook has become increasingly elusive. As the company has grown into a giant with over 63,000 employees, some of them have grown dissatisfied as it has gone from controversy to controversy over data privacy, disinformation and hate speech.
In 2018, Christopher Wylie, a disgruntled former employee of consultancy Cambridge Analytica, set the stage for the leaks. Mr Wylie spoke to The New York Times, The Observer of London and The Guardian to reveal that Cambridge Analytica inappropriately collected Facebook data to create voter profiles without user consent.
In the process, more and more Facebook employees began to speak out. Later that same year, Facebook employees provided memos and planning documents to news organizations including The Times and BuzzFeed News. In mid-2020, employees who disagreed with Facebook’s decision to leave a controversial post from President Donald J. Trump staged a virtual walkout and sent more internal information to media organizations.
“I think over the past year there have been more leaks than I think we all would have liked,” Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, said in a meeting with employees in June 2020.
Facebook tried to preemptively push Ms. Haugen back. Facebook’s vice president for policy and global affairs, Nick Clegg, sent employees a 1,500-word memo on Friday describing what the whistleblower was likely to say on “60 minutes” and calling the accusations “misleading.” . On Sunday, Mr. Clegg appeared on CNN to defend the company, saying the platform reflects “the good, the bad and the ugly of humanity” and that it tries “to alleviate the evil, to reduce and amplify the good “.
Facebook did not speak directly to Ms Haugen on Sunday evening. Lena Pietsch, a spokesperson for the company, said she continued “to make significant improvements to combat the spread of disinformation and harmful content. To suggest that we encourage bad content and do nothing is just not true.
In preparation for revealing herself, Ms Haugen and her team set up a Twitter account for her and a personal website. On the website, Ms Haugen was described as “an advocate for public scrutiny of social media”.
Originally from Iowa City, Iowa, Ms Haugen studied electrical and computer engineering at Olin College and earned an MBA from Harvard, the website said. She then worked on algorithms at Google, Pinterest and Yelp. In June 2019, she joined Facebook. There, she dealt with issues of democracy and disinformation, as well as counterintelligence, according to the website.
Ms Haugen’s complaint to the SEC was based on her treasury of documents and consisted of numerous cover letters, seven of which were obtained by The Times. Each letter detailed a different topic – such as Facebook’s role in spreading false information after the 2020 election and the impact of its products on adolescent mental health – and accused the company of making “false claims. and omissions in disclosures to investors and potential investors ”.
The letters compared public statements and disclosures to lawmakers made by Zuckerberg and other senior Facebook executives to internal company research and documents. In a cover letter, Ms Haugen said Facebook contributed to election misinformation and the Jan.6 insurgency on the U.S. Capitol.
While “Facebook has gone public with its work to tackle disinformation and violent extremism regarding the 2020 elections and insurgency,” Ms Haugen’s documents tell a different story, reads a cover letter. “In reality, Facebook knew that its algorithms and platforms were promoting this type of harmful content, and it failed to deploy internally recommended or sustainable countermeasures. “
Mr Tye said he had been in contact with the SEC’s whistleblower office and law enforcement division regarding Facebook. The SEC typically provides protections to corporate informants that protect them from retaliation. The agency also awards 10% to 30% rewards to whistleblowers if their whistleblowers result in successful enforcement actions that result in monetary penalties of more than $ 1 million.
The SEC did not respond to a request for comment.
After filing the complaint with the SEC, Ms Haugen and her legal team contacted Mr Blumenthal and Ms Blackburn, Mr Tye said. Lawmakers held a hearing in May on protecting children online, focusing on how companies like Facebook collected data through apps like Instagram.
In August, Mr Blumenthal and Ms Blackburn sent a letter to Mr Zuckerberg asking Facebook to disclose his internal research into how his services were affecting children’s mental health. Facebook responded with a letter highlighting the positive effects of its apps on children and deflecting questions on internal research.
But documents from Ms Haugen have shown that Facebook researchers have done numerous studies on the effects its products can have on adolescents, Mr Blumenthal said in an interview last week. The company had engaged in “cover-ups and deceptions,” he said.
In an interview on Sunday, Mr Blumenthal said Ms Haugen “has proven to be credible, courageous and convincing on her first visit to my office at the end of the summer”.
Some of Ms Haugen’s documents have also been distributed to state attorneys general in California, Vermont, Tennessee, Massachusetts and Nebraska, Tye said.
But he said the documents had not been shared with the Federal Trade Commission, which filed an antitrust complaint against Facebook. In a video Posted by Whistleblower Aid on Sunday, Ms Haugen said she did not believe the separation from Facebook would solve the problems inherent in the business.
“The way forward is all about transparency and governance,” she said in the video. “It’s not about breaking Facebook.
Ms Haugen also spoke with French and UK lawmakers, as well as a member of the European Parliament. This month, she is due to appear before a British parliamentary committee. This will be followed by stops at the Web Summit, a technology conference in Lisbon and Brussels to meet with European policymakers in November, Tye said.
On Sunday, a GoFundMe page created by Whistleblower Aid for Ms Haugen was also uploaded. Noting that Facebook had “unlimited resources and an army of lawyers,” the group set a goal of raising $ 10,000. In 30 minutes, 18 donors had donated $ 1,195. Shortly after, the fundraising goal was increased to $ 50,000.